Death by Ivory


Standing at an average height of 11 ft. and weighing 6 tons, the African elephant is the largest mammal walking the Earth. As they migrate through the African continent, their presence profoundly shapes the ecosystem.1 The animal is vital to the survival of several species varying from trees that rely on elephants to disperse their seeds to the smaller ground animals who drink from the water that accumulates in their giant indented footprints. The African elephant is indisputably beautiful, intelligent and social; but it is in grave danger. Approximately 400,000 individual African elephants are left in the wild, and their existence is constantly and heavily threatened by human activity.2

A herd of Elephants in Tsavo West National Park, Kenya | Courtesy of Martin Roemers

In 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the African Elephant to be vulnerable – meaning that they are at a high risk of becoming extinct or endangered in the near future. According to the IUCN, a species is considered endangered if there is a : “50–70% population decrease over 10 years, a total geographic area less than 5,000 km2 (or local population area less than 500 km2), a population size less than 2,500 adults, a restricted population of 250 adults, or a statistical prediction that it will go extinct within the next 20 years.”3

The elephant is hunted at the rate that it is because of its ivory tusks. The most distinguishable features of an elephant are its elongated incisors which are made of ivory: a hard, white and extremely valuable and durable material. This “white gold” is currently worth a total of $1,500 per pound and is sold primarily as fashion and ornamental items carved into jewelry, art pieces or kept as a trophy and a sign of wealth.4 To collect this ivory, poachers kill elephants and mutilate the animal’s head to extract the tusks from their root in the cranial cavity.5

The remains of more than 300 elephants killed by poachers in Cameroon | Courtesy of Brent Stirton of National Geographic

This ivory trade was banned in 1989 under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which mentions that the Elephas Maximus and “all parts and derivatives of the species” are to be protected.6 Despite the convention, the ivory trade is very much alive and is decimating the species. Five African countries continue to provide ivory Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi and Burundi because herds reside within the states’ boundaries or because they possess stocks of ivory ready to sell to the highest bidder.7

Poachers, who are for the most part locals, rely on the money made from selling tusks to sustain their family. As was the case with John Kaimio a 33-year-old Kenyan man who admitted to killing 70 elephants and was sentenced to prison. Kaimio explained that before entering this business his family would rely on livestock, but the arid climate killed the animals and any resources needed to survive. In his own words Kaimio explained that he went into the business of poaching to meet the needs of his family, “to buy food and pay for my child to go to boarding school. This amount could change things.”8

Despite the widespread structural poverty in these countries, poaching remains a cruel business and organizations around the world fight to put an end to this illicit trade. One of these organizations is The Elephant Information System (ETIS) which tracks down parties of the illegal ivory trade. It has classified countries like China, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Uganda, and Vietnam as being of primary concern because of the vast amounts of ivory that have been seized or because they serve major transit points for ivory.9 China remains the world’s largest consumer of legal and illegal ivory that is used for medicine, ornaments, and all kinds of carvings. It is estimated that 50% to 70% of poached ivory ends up in China despite there being a ban in place since 1990.10

A pile of ivory collected and destroyed in China in 2014, weighing over 6 tonnes | Courtesy of CNN News

In 2017, China announced they would begin a new and heavily enforced total ban on domestic ivory with the purpose to “improve elephant conservation and combat illegal ivory trade…”11 Since December 30, 2017, China banned not only the processing  of ivory, but also the sale of it. Additionally, ivory carvers and anyone who relied on the ivory business to survive, have been encouraged to work in museums or abandon their skills altogether.

Other countries involved in the ivory trade include Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic and the United States, which is the second largest ivory consumer in the world.12 In 2017, President Trump lifted the ban on importing elephant heads from Zimbabwe and Zambia into the United States. The justification for lifting the ban is that managing the population of elephants in these African countries will benefit the survival of other species in the wild.13 As explained by the CEO of the Humane Society, Wayne Pallace, lifting this ban delivers a message to the rest of the world that by allowing rich Americans to collect trophies, the United States is dismissing the international community’s efforts to ensure the survival of the elephant risking their becoming endangered.14

A wildlife ranger stands guard as the Kenyan government burns their ivory stockpile. | Picture by Ben Curtis.

Other countries, however, are doing all that they can to protect the species. In 2016, the Kenyan government set on fire 105 tons of ivory- the remains of 6,500 poached elephants, to convey to the world that they are fervently opposed to the ivory trade. In the words of President Kenyatta, “For us, ivory is worthless unless it is in our elephants.”15 In the past 27 years countries like the United States, China, the Philippines and many others have burned their ivory stockpiles, but none has ever been as huge or as significant. This action of solidarity with the elephant in Kenya is classified as the largest burning of ivory in world history and is important to mention because Kenya is an underdeveloped country that struggles with poverty and droughts. President Kenyatta explained that the worth of their stockpile – which is roughly $150 million dollars – could aid the development of the country significantly, but prefers to burn the tusks due to the immorality of poaching.16

Demonstrators in Johannesburg, South Africa against the ivory trade. | Courtesy of the Guardian.

Governments, however, are not the only entities capable and willing to help the African elephant. More than 50 international organizations dedicate their efforts to ensure the survival of the African Elephant. Some of which include: the Nature Conservancy, Save the Elephants, Global Sanctuary for Elephants, Friends of the Elephant and many others. Much can be done to help at the individual level as well by joining protests for the banishment of the ivory trade. An example of this occurred in 2014, where thousands marched in 136 cities ranging from Washington, D.C. to Paris, to Nairobi, Kenya to pressure government officials in these countries to ban poaching and to toughen the laws that allow for it to take place.17 The cruel and unnecessary poaching of elephants will halt when the demand for the material ceases and alternative means of survival can be pursued for former poachers to support their families. The ivory trade will bring about the extinction of the African elephant, unless altered. The situation for the African elephant will improve once all people become educated of the ruthlessness behind this business, and governments all around the world become willing to join the conservation efforts to save the elephants. As humans it is our duty to prevent such intrinsically beautiful and important species from disappearing from the face of the Earth.

  1. ”African Elephant”, World Wildlife Fund, accessed April 22, 2018,
  2. Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc., “Great Elephant Census Final Results,” Great Elephant Census, last modified 2016,
  3. Jonathan Hogeback, Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v.”What Makes a Species Endangered?, accessed April 22, 2018,” Between 2007-2014, the elephant population decreased by 30% and the decline rate is rapidly accelerating primarily due to poaching for the ivory trade. The extinction of this species is then highly plausible and it becomes clear that the African elephant is rapidly approaching the threshold where they will be classified as endangered.[3. Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc., “Great Elephant Census Final Results,” Great Elephant Census, las modified 2016,
  4. Mark Strauss, “Who buys Ivory? You’d be Surprised,” National Geographic, August 12, 2015,
  5. Erin Keyes, “An Elephant’s Tears,” African Wildlife Foundation (blog), February 2, 2010,
  6. Appendices I,II, III “Convention on International Trade in Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES),” July 1973,
  7. Jane Perlez, “Ivory Trade is Banned to Save the Elephant,” The New York Times, October 1989,
  8. Stephen Messenger, “Exclusive Interview with an Elephant Poacher,” the Dodo, January 1, 2014,
  9. Adam Cruise, “Ivory Trading Nations Exposed,” Conservation Action Trust, November 28, 2016,
  10. Ross Harvey, “China’s ban on domestic ivory trade is huge, but the battle isn’t won,” The Conservation, January 11, 2017,
  11. “China Announcement of Domestic Ivory Ban in 2017- English Translation,” WCS Newsroom, January 3, 2017,
  12. Adam Cruise, “Ivory Trading Nations Exposed,” Conservation Action Trust, November 28, 2016,
  13. Adam Edelman and Kristen Welker, “Trump Administration lifts ban on importing heads of hunted elephants,” NBC News, November 16, 2017,
  14. Adam Edelman and Kristen Welker, “Trump Administration lifts ban on importing heads of hunted elephants,” NBC News, November 16, 2017,
  15. Rachel Nuwer, “Kenya Sets Ablaze 105 tons of Ivory,” National Geographic, April 30, 2016,
  16. Rachel Nuwer, “Kenya Sets Ablaze 105 tons of Ivory,” National Geographic, April 30, 2016,
  17. Agence France-Presse, “Elephant poaching: thousands march worldwide for wildlife protection,” The Guardian, October 4, 2014,

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This Post Has 100 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Nicolas Llosa

    This article showed the reality of the world we live in. This article shows how humans are able to impose their power over animals and drive a whole species to near extinction. This shows how egocentric the human race is. The fact that such an amazing animal like the African elephant is being driven to extinction just for the commercialization of their Ivory tusks is heartbreaking. I was surprised and somewhat relieved to see that other countries are doing something to stop the commercialization of ivory tusks. It’s so sad to see what humans are doing to the earth, this article showed me that its time to change the way humans act and stop harming other species.

  2. Avatar
    Yaniev Ibarra

    I am heartbroken. This article allowed me to see how greedy the human race is, would do anything for wealth. The African Elephants are vital to maintain suitable habitats for other species. Up to 30 percent of tree species rely on elephants to help with germination and dispersal. It is crazy to see how humans continue to take what is not theirs, we want to be the owner of everything on the face of the earth, but we need to rapidly come to the conclusion that we are just another species here that must respect what we have around us. It is a real shame what we have made this world to be.

  3. Avatar
    Aracely Beltran

    It was very hard for me to read this article because Elephants are my favorite animal. If you don’t understand my love for these mammals then I recommend the movie “elephant” of Disney. I hate seeing people hurt these animals and it would be a shame if we cause their extinction. Humans are the real reason why this world is the way it is.

  4. Avatar
    Raul Colunga

    It is a shame that the elephants are being massacred to such an extent. While I understand that a lot of the poachers are just doing it to feed their families, once all of the elephants are gone then they are gone for good. Also, another reason why ivory is being sold so much is because of people in Asian countries that use it for medicine. Not only elephant tusks but also rhino. It is a good to see that China has increased how strict they are with the importation of ivory to improve the population of the elephants.

  5. Avatar
    Mauro Bustamante

    Its understanding that the people in African need money to feed and support their family but the way they achieve in getting their money by slaughtering animals, specifically elephants for their ivory is just inhuman. Learning that there are only about 400,000 individual African elephants are left in the wild and that their existence is in constant danger. Its heartbreaking knowing that people are ripping animals apart for in general trying to survive or find a way to get money. We talk about the extinction of animals and ways to help of species survive but first we need to have self-check on what we do to animals for our own benefit.

  6. Avatar
    Hannah Hennon

    It makes me so sad that there are still poachers who get ivory tusks from elephants even if it is a means of providing for their family. I can imagine how hard it is for those families, and there must be a lot of money involved in selling ivory tusks illegally, but I do not think it justifies their actions completely.

  7. Avatar
    Ashley Martinez

    This article was extremely depressing to read about because it is an issue that we are seeing frequently in our society today. It is awful to see how elephants are being exploited for their ivory. These elephants do not deserve to be killed, they should not be endangered. I am glad that this law was put in place to protect these wonderful and majestic creatures. It is crazy how in our society today people will do anything for money even if they know that it is wrong.

  8. Kimberly Parker
    Kimberly Parker

    Reading this article was honestly a little heartbreaking. I mean, learning that there are only about 400,000 individual African elephants are left in the wild and that their existence is in constant danger due to human activity is just shocking and sad. It is understandable that Africans need money in order to support their families and that poaching for them is the easiest option, but it’s just so inhumane to slaughter an animal for their ivory, and the way that they do it, by not only killing the elephants but then mutilating their heads in order to extract the tusks from their root in the cranial cavity is just gruesome. I honestly don’t know how people have the heart to do something this horrendous to animals that are so gorgeous and majestic. At the rate that poaching is going, I fear that future generations will have to learn about elephants the same way we had to learn about the Dodo bird, through books.

  9. Avatar
    Jose De Julian

    It’s heartbreaking to learn that there are only 400,000 elephants left in the wild. I understand many africans need money to support their families but it’s just inhumane to slaughter an animal for their ivory. Poaching really needs stricter regulations to stop the decline of elephant populations. I understand china has strict laws against the sale of ivory but I really feel its not enforcing these laws since 50%-70% of the ivory ends up there. Elephants need to be left alone in the wild.

  10. Amanda Uribe
    Amanda Uribe

    The rate at which Elephants are being poached is really alarming. I think that people don’t understand that life is so precious. It is sad to think that future generations might not grow up with Elephants. The poaching really needs to stop. I am really surprised at how strict China’s laws are against even the sale of ivory. I think a lot more countries need to take a stand and help ensure that Elephants are not killed for ivory.

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